Liberty Heights (1999)

by Cynthia Fuchs


Stereotypes Redux

“No Jews, Dogs, or Coloreds.’’ This sign, set outside a suburban Baltimore country club in 1954, appears early in Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights, establishing at once the irony of its title (the name of a suburban Jewish neighborhood where its protagonists reside) and the film’s focus on the insidious workings of prejudice, ranging from conspicuous to subtle.

It’s no secret that Levinson knows a little something about this subject, having come up in Baltimore during the fifties, and his film enlists details — vocabulary, gestures, and assumptions — that can only come from well-remembered experience. But he’s also gone on very public record that he devised the film after Entertainment Weekly‘s film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum called the Dustin Hoffman character in Levinson’s Sphere “Jewish,” based on his mannerisms. Feeling confronted with this assumption of stereotype, Levinson decided to consider the U.S. (or more precisely, Baltimore) social history behind his own discomfort with such assumptions. The resulting film is part personal and part pedantic, but mostly reductive concerning the very problems it wants to evaluate.

cover art

Liberty Heights

Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Joe Mantegna, Adrien Brody, Ben Foster, Rebekah Johnson, Bebe Neuwirth

(Warner Bros.)
US theatrical: 17 Nov 1999 (General release)
Germany release date: 5 Oct 2000

The story is schematic, following three narrative strands that come together, more or less. In the first, high school senior Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster) finds himself repeatedly caught between rocks and hard places, trying to understand the grown-up business of race and class distinctions, and especially the ways that his parents deal with them. His budding sexuality, of course, underlies an early crisis. When he inadvertently admits to his mother, Ada (Bebe Neuwirth) that he kind of likes Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the first colored girl in his newly integrated class, mom wails in stereotypical horror, “Kill me now!”

Ben doesn’t understand Ada’s response, given that he has been raised amid a general antipathy to bigotry. And his next youthful challenge to what he sees as his parents’ inconsistent rule-making is even more upsetting. On Halloween, he dresses up as Hitler. Obviously, mom won’t let him out of the house in this unspeakably insolent get-up, and she even calls his father, Nate (Joe Mantegna), who’s working late at the office, to confirm her disapproval. While ben understands his decision as parodic, the older generation only sees his lack of knowledge, respect, and sense of history. Meanwhile, of course, they are both not seeing the equally crucial and earth-changing history that’s being made as they go about their daily lives, that being enacted in Ben’s crush on Sylvia.

Sweet but inexperienced, Ben displays predictable ignorance during his non-dates with Sylvia. As they spend furtive moments together after school (driving through her neighborhood, he hides on the floor of her car, where the view up her skirt both titillates and embarrasses him), he announces to her that the music she’s playing is all news to him: “I listen to regular radio.” Patient as can be, the saintly Sylvia appears to appreciate Ben’s openness to new experiences, and soon they’re sharing deep conversations about what it’s like to be black in America and listening to her records One afternoon in her bedroom, he gets so excited as she reaches across him to retrieve an album that he ejaculates all over the front of his trousers: clearly, this is funny, but it’s also one of many unexamined moments in the film that use stereotypes (say, sexualized black bodies or white assumptions of same) as punch lines. The climax — so to speak — of Ben’s initiation into so-called adulthood comes when Sylvia convinces him and his friend to attend a James Brown concert (of course, they’re the only white boys in sight): after one or two of Brown’s trademark moves, it’s clear that young Ben, thrilled and uplifted, will never be the same.

In the second plot line, Ben’s college-age brother Van (Adrien Brody) is discovering his own connections between sex and self-knowledge, as he is developing his own forbidden infatuation, with a Gentile princess called Dubbie (model-who-looks-it Carolyn Murphy), not to mention a complicated friendship with Dubbie’s Ken-doll boyfriend Trey (Justin Chambers). Appropriately (and yes, tritely), Van discovers his love on Halloween, when he and a couple of friends drive across town to a rich kids’ party: he spots her across the room, literally wearing a fairy princess costume. Dubbie’s conventionally spoiled and demanding, however (not to mention nominally attached to Trey), and Van’s developing relationship with her goes through the predictable disillusionment. More interesting is his friendship with Trey, an affable if not-so-bright James Dean wannabe who actually does crack up his car during a post-party drive down the highway.

At first, Van’s deepening affection for Trey is based in his appreciation for the latter’s willingness to share his stuff, including Dubbie (he tells Van it’s fine that he date her, but that he should beware her complexities). Van does learn his lesson, but this occurs within a particularly grating example of the rich white girl’s culturally conditioned and entirely expected unhappiness. That is, Dubbie could be Dorothy Malone in Written on The Wind, sexually promiscuous and raging in alcohol abuse, only she’s not nearly rowdy or stunning. Rather, her anger and frustration are turned predictably inward, such that she’s turned into an object of pity and object lesson, for Van.

The film’s third narrative involves Nate, who must finally admit that his local burlesque house and small numbers racket are 1) illegal, and 2) being phased out in the name of “progress’’ (movies, TV, and the lottery). As Nate struggles to support his family’s middle class aspirations and his own annual itch for a new Cadillac, he hits a wall when Little Melvin (Orlando Jones, currently the “Make Seven Up Yours” pitchman), a black, small time drug dealer, hits the number and Nate doesn’t have the cash to pay him: he offers him part of his failing business instead. Melvin decides to get his own payback, which leads to a contrived crisis involving Ben and Sylvia. Melvin — also true to stereotype — makes some crude sexual comments about the couple, causing Ben to take his first considered, adult stand.

All of this — which seems so painfully reactionary, in such a particular way — suggests that Levinson’s understanding of his work remains more limited than the work itself. The quality of his films and TV projects fluctuates widely, from Rainman‘s clunky sentimentalism to Diner‘s popular nostalgia to the often brilliant insights of TV’s Homicide and Oz (both of which he has worked on with Tom Fontana). Liberty Heights is not so cloying as the first, or so dazzling as the last. Like Ben, it seems caught between hard places, inspired by an apparent reduction and leading to one as well.

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